Reference tracks: how to and how NOT to use them

Reference tracks: How to and how NOT to use them

What are reference tracks?

Reference tracks are mixed and/or mastered songs that you use to compare your own mix to during a mixing session. Periodically listening to a portion of a reference track during your mixing session will help you to notice certain characteristics about your own mix. It will reveal if your track is very bass heavy. It will help you to hear if your mix is heavily compressed. Or it may bring to light the fact that your vocals are very loud in comparison to the instruments.

Without comparing your mix to a reference track it’s easy to lose perspective on your mix. An overly loud guitar or a quiet vocal become hard to notice as your ears get used to listening to the mix over and over again. Switching over to your reference track will refresh your ability to listen critically to your own mix.

How to use reference tracks:

When it comes to using reference tracks, it goes without saying that you should pick tracks that you think are really well produced. After all, these reference tracks are going to be the gold standard that you will gauge your own mixes against. Try to use tracks which are from the same genre, and have the same instrumentation, as the tracks you’re mixing. There’s no sense in using an acoustic folk singer’s track to reference against a full band’s metal song. Use your reference tracks as something to compare multiple elements of your own mix to.

You can compare the levels of different instruments, as well as how they’re panned, compressed and equalized. You can also compare the overall characteristics of your mix, such as its overall width, frequency response, dynamic range and depth. That all sounds pretty straight forward right? But there are a couple of pitfalls to watch out for. So here’s how NOT to use reference tracks…

How NOT to use reference tracks:

It’s important not to fall into the trap of making a carbon copy of your reference track. A reference track is not necessarily there to give you something to try and replicate perfectly. It’s simply there to give you something to compare your mix to. So if you notice for instance that the organ in your mix is louder than the one in your reference track, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to turn it down. The reference track is there to reveal the differences to you. But it’s up to you what you do once you are aware of those differences. There’s certainly nothing wrong with leaving differences in place if that’s the way you want your mix to sound.

You also need to make sure that the difference in volume between your mix and your reference track doesn’t influence your perception. Be aware that if you’re using commercially released tracks to reference, then they will almost certainly have been mastered. So it’s highly likely that the reference track will be louder than your mix. This has the potential to make your mix sound weak in comparison to the reference track. It’s a good idea to level match your reference track to your mix to let you hear the differences between them more accurately.

What tracks do you like to use to reference your mixes against? Leave your suggestions for reference tracks in the comments section below.


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